Different Seasons – Stephen King
Like Four Past Midnight, the first book review I put on this blog, this is a collection of four novellas.
Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption
I’d already read this story as part of the collection Stephen King Goes To The Movies, so I speed-read it on this occasion. Narrated by Red, an inmate at Shawshank Prison, it tells the story of fellow prisoner and former banker Andy Dufresne and his near thirty years inside the prison. It is of course the source for the movie The Shawshank Redemption, which is in my top 20 favourite movies of all time – if you haven’t seen it, do so when you can.
I’ve tried to look at this story from the point of view of someone who hasn’t read it before or seen the film. In some technical aspects, it’s not a traditional story – there’s only a vague three-act structure in there, and for much of it, there’s no real indication of what the characters are aiming towards. When there is foreshadowing of what happens at the end, it’s sometimes too heavy; even if you didn’t know, you might be able to figure it out. Ultimately, it’s just the story of Andy’s life in Shawshank (as well as Red, but he’s not the focus despite being the narrator) – and it works perfectly well like that. The prose is so good, and the characters and events and recollections so interesting, that you keep reading even though you’re not sure exactly where it’s taking you. Rating: 4.5/5.
This is the story of a seemingly bright and well-behaved teenage boy named Todd, and an old man named Arthur Denker – who is in fact a former Nazi named Kurt Dussander, now hiding under a false identity in America. Todd, who is a bit more interested in the Holocaust than is healthy for a teenager, blackmails Dussander into telling him his old war stories in exchange for not telling everyone who he really is; but as time passes, the relationship grows more complex, while both man and boy are changed – and not for the better.
What initially struck me at the beginning of this story was how, in this relationship between a teenage boy and a former concentration camp officer, it’s the boy who comes off as the bad guy. But that imbalance doesn’t last. This is another example of how well King can portray and develop characters; the way that Todd and Dussander develop as the story goes on is fascinating and believable, albeit in a very dark way that you would hope never to witness in real life. As the story goes on, things spiral out of control and it becomes more and more clear there’s no way back for either of the two main characters; and as in the previous story, you have to keep reading, with a kind of morbid fascination as to the depths that these characters sink to, and the fact that nobody else who knows them has any idea.
I did note that the effect of Dussander’s stories on Todd – looking ill, his school work suffering, yet still coming back for more – appeared to be a metaphor for drug addiction, which comes up in a few of King’s stories as he was once an addict himself. And I’m also impressed by just how it looks back at the Holocaust, perfectly highlighting the scale of the atrocities, to the point that it almost feels like a different world.
Again, the structure takes some figuring out; there is a point where it looks like it’s approaching a logical climax, though you know it’s still only halfway through – and it doesn’t suffer for carrying on past this point; even if you’re not sure where else the story can go, it carries on fine. I’d say this is the best story in the collection, but not for the faint of heart. Rating: 4.5/5.
Another simple story (the source for the film Stand By Me), following four young boys – Gordie, Chris, Vern and Teddy, with Gordie as the narrator – on summer vacation, as they hear about a dead body that’s turned up close to their home town, and set out on a hike to go and find it.
It’s easy to describe The Body as a coming-of-age story – Gordie, at least, sees a few things that change his view of the world, though we don’t see as much of what the other boys think about the whole thing; and they certainly come out of the experience different people than when they left. There’s a decent character dynamic between the four, though Vern and Teddy aren’t quite as fleshed out as Gordie and Chris. One thing I could criticise is that the narrative features a couple of stories-within-a-story from Gordie, which stop the main story and don’t have that much to do with it. Once again, it’s a straightforward story without much of a structure as such, but with plenty to keep you interested as you follow the boys on their journey. Rating: 4/5.
The Breathing Method
Compared to the other three stories, this one really feels pretty ordinary. It starts off with the narrator being invited to a club where some peculiar things are going on – but when it looks like this is going to be the focus, another character (at the club) tells a story about dealing with a pregnant woman in his days as a doctor, and that takes up most of the rest. As King himself notes in the afterword, is the story about the guy in the club, or the pregnant woman?
The latter story, while still interesting (and slightly horrific at one point, as is typical for King), isn’t quite as compelling as learning just what’s going on the club – but we don’t really find out anything for certain about that. Looking at the clues, it may be related to The Dark Tower universe – but I’ve only read the first of those books so I can’t comment much. Rating: 3/5.
Overall, I liked this collection better than Four Past Midnight – three of the stories are brilliant, and the fourth is still good. Rating: 4.5/5.